CORPORATESPEAK

A me­chan­i­cal engi­neer by pro­fes­sion, Babu John set off on a new path to build the now much-re­spected chain Sky Jew­ellery. On the cusp of its 40th an­niver­sary cel­e­bra­tions, he tells Anand Raj OK what gives him the great­est hap­pi­ness – and why he en­joys gar

Friday - - CONTENTS - PHO­TOS BY ANAS THACHARPADIKKAL

Babu John from Sky Jew­ellery tells us how the hunt for a gold chain for his mother led to 40 years of a hugely suc­cess­ful brand.

Babu John mulls the ques­tion for a few sec­onds. ‘Ac­tu­ally there have been not one but sev­eral mo­ments that have made me re­ally happy since I set up this gold busi­ness in 1978,’ says the chair­man and man­ag­ing di­rec­tor of Sky Jew­ellery. ‘What truly warms my heart is know­ing that for the last 40 years, we have been help­ing peo­ple fall in love, get en­gaged and mar­ried. It feels spe­cial to have been – and con­tinue to be – a part of peo­ple’s lives dur­ing their most joy­ous oc­ca­sions such as bap­tisms, chris­ten­ings, birth­days and an­niver­saries too. It makes one happy to know that cus­tomers will al­ways be re­mem­ber­ing us fondly be­cause of the glit­ter­ing mem­o­ries as­so­ci­ated with gold.’

There is an­other rea­son for Babu to re­joice. As the group that he founded is cel­e­brat­ing its 40th an­niver­sary this year – mega cel­e­bra­tory plans are sched­uled for later this year – he is pleased that his busi­ness con­glom­er­ate now en­com­passes more than just gold but also hospi­tal­ity, tex­tiles, restau­rants and more.

What adds a sparkle to the suc­cess story is the fact that Babu did not be­gin his ca­reer in the jew­ellery busi­ness. A me­chan­i­cal engi­neer by pro­fes­sion he, how­ever, was al­ways keen on fol­low­ing in his busi­ness­man fa­ther’s foot­steps.

Grow­ing up in Chenganoor in the south­ern In­dian state of Ker­ala, Babu, af­ter his col­lege stud­ies was for a while in­volved in state pol­i­tics ‘some­thing my mother de­spised’, he says. It was she who per­suaded him to move to the Mid­dle East con­vinced he would be­come a suc­cess­ful busi­ness­man. She would not be wrong.

In 1975, he landed a job in Qatar and while trav­el­ling there, tran­sited Dubai and de­cided to spend a few days with a friend based here. ‘Even at that time I re­mem­ber Dubai was a grow­ing, bustling econ­omy. Com­pared to some other Gulf cities, it was way ahead; there was a cer­tain pos­i­tive buzz about the place,’ re­calls Babu, to­day seated in his plush multi-storey villa in Dubai.

What he also found fas­ci­nat­ing was that even dur­ing the 70s, ‘the gold busi­ness was boom­ing in Dubai. It seemed to be a favourite item to present rel­a­tives, fam­ily and friends back home’.

One of Babu’s first jobs was with a bank, but he ad­mits that his heart was al­ways in ‘set­ting up a busi­ness and be­ing my own boss’. So, even while hold­ing a reg­u­lar job, he set up a build­ing main­te­nance com­pany and a con­tract­ing com­pany and would ex­pertly jug­gle them all suc­cess­fully.

The foray into gold busi­ness, though, hap­pened by chance. ‘One day, I set out to pur­chase a gold chain for my mother back in In­dia and ap­proached a store in Doha,’ he says. If Babu thought he could step in, choose a chain, pay and step out with the or­na­ment,

Babu is all praise for the rel­a­tive ease of set­ting up a busi­ness in the UAE. ‘There are no cum­ber­some tax reg­u­la­tions, no red tape, no bu­reau­cracy…’

he was wrong. ‘I was told that I’d have to wait for some four months be­fore it would be ready sim­ply be­cause most jew­ellery pieces were made to or­der and not avail­able off the shelf.’

Peeved that he had to wait for such an in­or­di­nate length of time, Babu’s mind got work­ing. ‘I de­cided to start a gold busi­ness where cus­tomers would have a pleas­ant shop­ping ex­pe­ri­ence without hav­ing to wait for months for a piece of jew­ellery,’ he says.

Once he had an idea, he quickly set to work. One of the first things to be de­cided was the name for his store. The ge­nial racon­teur that he is, Babu re­veals that he ini­tially wanted to name the busi­ness Arun Jew­ellery – af­ter his el­dest son Arun Ja­cob John, now the soft-spo­ken di­rec­tor of Sky Jew­ellery.

‘How­ever, the au­thor­i­ties in charge of pre­par­ing the li­cens­ing doc­u­ment for some rea­son could not get the name right. The sec­ond pref­er­ence was Akash – af­ter the cou­ple’s sec­ond son Akash Ja­cob. While at the reg­is­tra­tion counter, the of­fi­cial asked him the mean­ing of Akash. ‘I told him ‘I said it means sky, in Malay­alam’,’ says Babu. ‘The of­fi­cial told me ‘We can give you the name Sky to regis­ter your com­pany.’ They then wrote ‘Samah’ – Sky, in Ara­bic – on the doc­u­ment.’

Babu smiles re­flect­ing on the early days. Sip­ping a cup of tea that his wife Daisy serves him, he watches his grand­chil­dren play­ing in the liv­ing room. ‘Daisy has al­ways been a pil­lar of sup­port,’ he says. In the ini­tial days, Daisy would help choose jew­ellery de­signs and man­age the of­fice while Babu would be busy build­ing the busi­ness.

It was hard work, he ad­mits. ‘But I was con­vinced it would be a suc­cess and put my heart and soul into my dream to make it a re­al­ity.’

It paid off.

In 1988, he de­cided to set up op­er­a­tions in Dubai and set up the first Sky Jew­ellery store in the Deira Gold Souq. ‘It was a busy area throng­ing with cus­tomers. I was keen to have a base here be­cause I was aware of the huge po­ten­tial for busi­ness here.’

Again, Babu’s gut in­stinct was not wrong. ‘Fol­low­ing on its suc­cess, we soon ex­panded and started an­other store in Karama, then an­other in Shar­jah…’

To­day, Sky Jew­ellery has over 20 show­rooms across the UAE, in In­dia and a few coun­tries in the Gulf. The group also has busi­ness in­ter­ests in hospi­tal­ity, food, real es­tate, tex­tiles and con­ven­tion cen­tres in In­dia.

Babu is all praise for the rel­a­tive ease of set­ting up a busi­ness in the UAE. ‘There are no cum­ber­some tax reg­u­la­tions, no red tape, no bu­reau­cracy… Once I de­cide on a store, we would work on the in­te­ri­ors. The reg­is­tra­tion it­self would take less than a few hours. The au­thor­i­ties are ex­tremely en­cour­ag­ing and

help­ful in all ar­eas. So it was – and con­tin­ues to be – a breeze do­ing busi­ness here.’

What are his guid­ing busi­ness prin­ci­ples? Babu doesn’t have to think twice. ‘My dad taught me to fol­low three rules of busi­ness,’ he says. ‘And those are the ones I con­tinue to ad­here to and which my sons hold on to and con­sider rules of thumb for all busi­ness deal­ings.

‘These rules are sacro­sanct – be hon­est in deal­ings, be punc­tual and stick to con­trac­tual dead­lines, and last but not least, of­fer ex­cel­lent cus­tomer ser­vice.’

Babu and Arun, who is now a ma­jor de­ci­sion maker in the com­pany’s op­er­a­tions, be­lieve that Sky Jew­ellery’s great­est strength is that ‘we of­fer more gold for the same money. This is one of the ma­jor rea­sons for our suc­cess. We are able to do this be­cause the work­ing charges on jew­ellery pieces is kept low and the ben­e­fit passed on to cus­tomers’, says Babu.

Arun agrees. ‘Of­fer­ing value for money and more gold for the same money is our USP.’

How do they dis­cern trends in jew­ellery? ‘Guess­ing a good suc­cess­ful de­sign in­volves ex­pe­ri­ence and a bit of luck. Of course it in­volves a bit of risk, too’ says Babu. ‘In some case, the risk fac­tor is quite high.’

‘Since I have 40 years of ex­pe­ri­ence in the busi­ness, I can look at a de­sign and al­most im­me­di­ately guess whether it will be a suc­cess or not. Call it gut feel­ing, but it has never let me down,’ says Babu in all mod­esty. ‘For in­stance, I know which de­sign would sell like hot cakes and which ones might take a bit of time for peo­ple to ac­cept.’

Once Babu is con­vinced that a par­tic­u­lar de­sign will be a suc­cess, he ar­ranges to get them to be dis­played in all their stores.

Ac­cord­ing to Arun, when a par­tic­u­lar de­sign be­comes a trend and starts sell­ing well, it cre­ates a buzz in the mar­ket that will get more foot­fall into the stores. ‘Some jew­ellery de­signs are pop­u­lar for a few months while some con­tinue to be trendy for years,’ he says.

‘We also con­stantly mon­i­tor the mar­ket, ex­am­in­ing de­signs that peo­ple like as well as those that they dis­like, what they seem to pre­fer and what they are re­ject­ing. All that in­for­ma­tion is use­ful for us to col­late be­cause our judge­ments and pre­dic­tions are based on those trends.’

Babu and Arun mon­i­tor Western as well as East­ern mar­kets be­fore de­cid­ing on the de­signs to be dis­played in stores. ‘There are dif­fer­ent types of col­lec­tions in­clud­ing Ital­ian, Sin­ga­pore, Mid­dle East, In­dian and Wed­ding. We keep mon­i­tor­ing trends in all these ar­eas and choose the best to be show­cased in our stores,’ says Arun.

Babu walks over to ruf­fle the hair of his lit­tle grand­son who has just re­turned home af­ter an out­ing. The lit­tle one gives him a hug be­fore run­ning off to play with his cousins. The Sky Jew­ellery pa­tri­arch is clearly en­joy­ing the lit­tle time he has got off from his busy sched­ule.

‘My busi­ness day starts at 7am. Un­til 9.30, I’m busy on the phone with var­i­ous in­di­vid­u­als and com­pa­nies as­so­ci­ated with our var­i­ous busi­nesses. I also make it a point to read the news­pa­per from the mast­head un­til the last page. One needs to be aware of lo­cal, re­gional, na­tional and in­ter­na­tional hap­pen­ings,’ says the fa­ther of three sons – Arun, Akash and Amit Vargh­ese.

In of­fice at 10, he meets sup­pli­ers, dis­cusses strate­gies with the se­nior man­age­ment team, af­ter which he has an in­tense meet­ing with heads of counter sales teams to take cus­tomer feed­back ‘to find out what if any changes need to be made to serve the peo­ple bet­ter’.

Back home at 2pm for lunch, ‘I like to re­lax a bit with the grand­chil­dren and fam­ily and have a short snooze’, he says.

At 4pm, he is back in of­fice catch­ing up on pend­ing is­sues af­ter which he vis­its the var­i­ous stores ‘to en­sure ev­ery­thing is go­ing smoothly. I also take feed­back live from the sales peo­ple to find out and fix any is­sues.

‘If there is one piece of ad­vice I give my chil­dren, it is that hon­esty and hard­work are the only in­gre­di­ents of suc­cess. At the cost of sound­ing clichéd, I want to stress on hard work. Without putting in a lot of ef­fort you can­not ex­pect to reap suc­cess. That is fun­da­men­tal to this busi­ness, per­haps to all busi­nesses.’

‘Hon­esty,’ says Babu. ‘That’s my num­ber one prin­ci­ple. And of­fer­ing peo­ple value for money.’ What are his man­age­ment prin­ci­ples?

Babu believes in be­ing a hands-on man­ager and says he never hes­i­tates in rolling up his sleeves and get­ting down to work if need be. ‘I be­lieve in be­ing avail­able for my staff and for the cus­tomers at all times.’

The rules for suc­cess are pretty sim­ple, he says. ‘You should be aware of ev­ery­thing that is hap­pen­ing in the var­i­ous stores. You have to quite lit­er­ally know ev­ery sin­gle piece of jew­ellery in the store and be aware of how it is pro­duced – from start to the com­pleted prod­uct. Only then will you be able to sell it well. You must be ready to spend all your time, ef­fort and wak­ing hours pur­su­ing the busi­ness.’

Babu has clearly honed this to per­fec­tion. ‘We were one of the very first in Ker­ala to come up with the idea of a wed­ding cen­tre – a on­estop shop for all things re­lated to a wed­ding such as clothes, jew­ellery, etc,’ he says. ‘It was a pi­o­neer­ing idea of sorts some 30 years ago.

‘It was Sky Jew­ellery that first started ad­ver­tis­ing that it sold jew­ellery with a hall­mark guar­an­tee­ing qual­ity – some­thing that has be­come a stan­dard of sorts in the busi­ness to­day.’

‘Prov­i­dence led me to this sec­tor’

Was he ap­pre­hen­sive when en­ter­ing a high value busi­ness like gold?

‘It was prov­i­dence that led me to en­ter this sec­tor,’ he says. ‘And no, I was never scared. In fact I en­joy tak­ing risks. Over­com­ing chal­lenges is what gives me a buzz. Also, I was very clear about the vi­sion that I had for the store – to of­fer peo­ple value for their money.’

Arun, who is qui­etly ob­serv­ing his fa­ther, adds that one of the most im­por­tant lessons his fa­ther taught him is to be hon­est in all busi­ness deal­ings ‘and to stand by what Sky Jew­ellery is known for – of­fer­ing jew­ellery that is value for money’.

Babu smiles. Work is the only thing that gives him a buzz. A lover of gar­den­ing and farm­ing, he boasts about the kitchen gar­den that he has been rais­ing for the past sev­eral years. ‘I have chill­ies, eg­g­plant, green leafy veg­eta­bles… a lot of veg­etable in the kitchen gar­den. I en­joy tak­ing care of them dur­ing my free time,’ he says.

He then fishes out his smart­phone and shows me a few pic­tures of ba­nana plan­ta­tions that he has in his home­town in Ker­ala. ‘We got a lovely crop last sea­son,’ he says.

His other pas­sion is travel. ‘I love ex­plor­ing new places and dis­cov­er­ing lit­tle known gems there. One place I’d like to visit? China,’ he says. ‘Al­though I’ve vis­ited the coun­try a few times, there’s still a lot more to see there.’

Even cel­e­bra­tions are be­ing planned for the 40th an­niver­sary of Sky Jew­ellery, Babu is get­ting ready with his next dream ven­ture: a high-end ho­tel in Mun­nar, a hill sta­tion in Ker­ala. Thanks to his ex­pe­ri­ence in the hospi­tal­ity in­dus­try – the group has a few ho­tels and restau­rants in Ker­ala – he is sure it would be a suc­cess.

Don’t you think there’re al­ready a lot of ho­tels in Mun­nar? I ask. Wouldn’t he have to face a lot of com­pe­ti­tion?

‘Yes, there is a lot of com­pe­ti­tion in the sec­tor there,’ he ad­mits. ‘But com­pe­ti­tion is good. It will bring more busi­ness. Plus, it will be a nice chal­lenge. I have a clear vi­sion for the ho­tel. It will be a suc­cess.’

As for his dream for Sky Jew­ellery, he says he would like to open sev­eral more out­lets de­pend­ing on the mar­ket’s need for it. ‘We wouldn’t open out­lets just for the sake of it,’ he says. ‘We be­lieve in be­ing sta­ble and hav­ing a matured out­look for the mar­ket and the cus­tomers. But let me tell you this,’ he adds. ‘The UAE is the best place to do busi­ness, par­tic­u­larly gold busi­ness.’

‘Hon­esty in all busi­ness deal­ings,’ says Babu. ‘That’s my num­ber one prin­ci­ple. And the sec­ond prin­ci­ple is of­fer­ing peo­ple value for money’

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